This topic is sharing ideas and advice related to "re-opening" Sunday School and other children and youth ministries in our church buildings during the COVID-19 Pandemic (as quarantines lift).

 Be sure to see the post below listing "Healthy Sunday School Practices" as kids and teachers return to the classroom.


We've never been here before but we need to do it right:

Getting everyone back together and on the same page is going to be challenging.

  • New policies and healthy practices need to be enacted and enforced. (Sad to say that not everyone is taking the need to "reduce the spread" as seriously as others.) 

  • Some parents may be hesitant to send their kids to us and will take a "wait and see" attitude. 

  • Many parents and teachers will want to know what your plans for "social distancing" are.

  • Some leaders and volunteers may not want to expose themselves to groups. Some volunteers may be reluctant to come back until they feel it is "safe."

  • Some families will need their attendance habits rekindled.

  • Some types of activities will need to be restricted (such as singing, see post below).

  • We've got a lot of work to do to prepare for the "return" -- whether it be at church or in other spaces. 

"Returning" is not just a challenge,
it's an opportunity to show competence and compassion,
as well as lift up the importance of your ministry.

How are you planning to use this opportunity?

What message will be heard?

The story of Daniel, the Babylonian Exile, and the RETURN from Exile is instructive.

Daniel's story reminds us what was important, non-negotiable, worth risking your life for while in exile.

And when they were finally freed, they did not return to the "same old" 👀. Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilt, remodeled, and made Jerusalem better than ever.


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Celebrating "The Return from Coronavirus Exile" 
...a teaching opportunity not to be missed

As we start to see a "return to the new normal," it will be an opportunity to teach and celebrate where we have been, what we've learned (and didn't), and the new future we are moving into. Here are some of the things we can be talking about. What would you add to this list?

  • What did we miss? 
  • How are we different?
  • What are the benefits of being able to come together?
  • What does "social distancing" teach us about our responsibility to others? 
  • What have we learned from those on the "front lines" of caring for the sick? How can you be on the "frontline" for others?


I always like to "ground" my teaching and program themes in actual scripture, and lucky for us we have a lot to draw upon in the stories and names of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. 

The Ezra and Nehemiah and Esther lesson forums at Rotation.org have a number of great insights into the teaching ideas about "exile," "return," and "rebuild."  Not a lot -- because these aren't stories that we spend a lot of time on in Rotation or traditional Sunday School. But perhaps "just for a time such as this" there are enough good ideas to help frame "the return" with biblical images and insights.

Ezra came to rebuild "walls."  What kind of "walls" should we rebuild? and should we NOT rebuild? What has this exile taught us about keeping the distance and missing the closeness? How are we different? What do we build the Kingdom of God with? 

Nehemiah reinstituted the reading of The Law "to people who did not know it." What do we need to remind people of upon their return from "exile"?  What can we do to make their return full of gladness and anticipation? How like Nehemiah can we encourage the reestablishment of good habits and practices after all this "time off"?  

Daniel certainly made the most of his Exile -- rising up as a leader and example of "doing the right thing" and trusting God even in the Lion's Den.

And how about Esther, who realized that she was in a position to do GREAT GOOD and did it. Her story is particularly appropriate for "just such a time as this" when social justice is on everyone's minds and hearts.



Their names alone are teachable insights and summaries of their stories:

Ezra's name means "Helper of Yahweh"  (Azra-yahu)  How can we help the return of the exiles? 

Nehemiah's name means "Yahweh Comforts"  ...comfort = rest, wholeness, no fear, salvation. What comforts do we need to extend to others. What fears do we need to put to rest? 

Daniel's name means "God is my judge" ...a nod to Daniel's defense of prayer and worship against the edicts of Nebuchadnezzar.  Perhaps "God is my judge, not you!" is the full teachable meaning.  What did you "give up doing" during your time of exile? ...and what do you need to get back to and faithful about upon your return?

Esther's name means "morning star" -- which is "Ishtar" in Persian, their name for what we know to be the planet Venus. She certainly became a bright light to all.

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Our challenge is going to come from the timing of things. Our state's lockdown is until the end of May--unless our governor makes it even longer, again. We don't do Sunday School over the summer, so that means no Sunday School from mid-March when the lockdown started until September. That is 5 1/2 months! 

@CathyWalz posted:

Our challenge is going to come from the timing of things. Our state's lockdown is until the end of May--unless our governor makes it even longer, again. We don't do Sunday School over the summer, so that means no Sunday School from mid-March when the lockdown started until September. That is 5 1/2 months! 

@CathyWalz

I feel your pain about the effect of so long of a "lay off" from church, not only for the children, but for family habits, and church finances (among other things).  I know some churches have not done much so far. They seem to be in a holding pattern doing the minimum. I suspect they will be worse off the longer this thing continues.

"We are literally building the plane as we fly it right now."

-- a pastor in Geneva Illinois

Those who get creative and continue to adapt as things change will rebound more quickly (and win the respect and relevance of their members. To wit: See Amy's church photo of worship in their tent!)  

I was struck by the phrase "we don't do" in your reference to past practices of not doing summer Sunday School. There being nothing "normal" about this year, I would ask, "what do we NEED to do?" What will give hope? What will help people reconnect in some responsible way with their faith friends? (which to me seems to be the most important short-term need).

What could this look like?

I would begin the brainstorming by dropping the words "program" and "school" from our vocabulary and replace them with "reaching out" and "connecting."  There are some good ideas over here in the alternative-VBS discussion.

One of the things churches are discovering is that many of its people want to respond and serve. It is not only a Christian reflex, it a way of coping with our own sense of loss and anxiety. How can children serve?  The answers are probably LOCAL to where each of us lives.

In my community:

  • A church has been making and distributing home-sewn masks for children. Kids can help make and distribute to their friends.
  • A church on Main street put out a sign asking for canned goods, and there are cars there every time I drive by.  Kids can put on gloves and sort.
  • My granddaughter's best friend (and her mom) showed up on their doorstep last week with a cooler full of ice cream sandwiches in a wagon. They were wearing masks and gloves, stayed outside, and only stayed for 5 minutes because they had other neighbors to visit.
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Lifeway Resources, the educational publisher of the S. Baptist Convention, puts out some pretty good stuff even for Presbyterians like me. a wink

Read their "6 Considerations for Re-opening Your Kids Ministry"

One thing this resource doesn't address is how we can reach out to those who DO NOT initially heed the call to return. I suspect many parents will be from Missouri on this issue, i.e. "show me what you're doing and how many others think it's safe."  In this respect, we should be ready to post photos and videos of early gatherings (making sure they show good social practices).

  On a related subject, I found this very interesting blog asking "24 Questions Your Church Should Be Asking Before People Return."  Some of them pertain to children's ministry as well. 

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Experts advise us not to sing as usual
when we get back together

Tip: View creative ideas for safely "singing with kids in the time of COVID

In brief:
Experts in both the mechanics of singing and science of epidemiology (infection) backed by a large body of research are warning that the "forceful mechanics" of singing turns those infected into "super-spreaders" -- projecting virus-containing droplets in larger quantities over greater distances in confined spaces such as sanctuaries and classrooms that normal social distancing practices and common masks are largely ineffective against. Their findings are being taken seriously by performing arts organizations, choral leaders, and a growing number of worship experts across the country, as should those of us who sing with children and adults. See the articles below for more info.

Simply put, when we get back together,
among other things we should NOT be singing as usual.

This is no joke or over-reaction. Ask the members of Living Spirit United Church or Mt Vernon Presbyterian choir practice. They practiced hand-washing and safe distancing at their gatherings, but nearly half got sick and in both churches, two people died. There are other examples where infection rates soared after singing together. These are facts.

The initial "worship guidelines" from major denominations were not overly cautious about singing together in worship, but updates are now warning churches to change their practices. Check your denomination's COVID resources. Christian news outlets such as Christianity Today and the Religious News Service have also published warnings.

“Based on the science that we are learning about this week, we are urging and I am personally urging extreme caution,” said Rev. John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Singing together in congregations is a practice that we dearly love and are eager to promote, but loving our neighbor is job one here and so a time for fasting from this wonderful practice may be longer than any of us would like.” (RNS)

Here are two more additional articles about it. Be sure to read the suggestions at the end of this post and feel free to share your own in light of these important facts.

1) Singing, the Church, and COVID-19: A Caution for Moving Forward in Our Current Pandemic, written by Heather R. Nelson, Ph.D with numerous scientific citations and explanations about the "aerosol" effect of singing, concludes:

"For now, it is not safe to sing together." 

Dr. Nelson is church music director who also happens to be a vocologist and a voice teacher with a PhD in Vocal Pedagogy and Voice Science. 

What about masks? The cloth variety everyone is wearing are no more than 20-40% effective, and many homemade masks much less so. Even the "N95" masks used by first-responders are only 95% effective (that's what the "95" means).

2)  An expert panel assembled by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) laid out a sobering vision for the future of public singing in America, concluding that "there is no safe way for choirs to rehearse together until there is a vaccine or 95% effective treatment in place."  (This quote comes from Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medical Association, and the medical director of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of South Carolina.) 

"Singers are super-spreaders."

Singing emits about the same amount of particles as a cough, but unlike a cough, singing is constant and multiplied by the number of singers. 

This information needs to be shared with worship leaders and even solo singers -- who should all be wearing masks in gathering and enclosed spaces. In this season of COVID, angels speak and sing with muffled voices.

View more COVID & Singing related resources from that seminar.
Read the Washington Post's May 2020 article on the subject.

Posting this article hurts. I LOVE to sing. I love congregational singing and singing with kids. But I also try not to be stupid.

Dr. Nelson concludes with this note of hope that speaks to me as someone who sees problems as opportunities to learn something new:

I think it could actually be an amazingly instructional time for us as churches to dive more deeply into what worship means besides singing in our public gatherings. We can worship with preaching, testimony, prayer, contemplation…all things that are true worship that just happen to not be set to music.

I think it can also be a wonderful opportunity to take music out of the church building and put it back into homes. As a worship leader and a music educator, I have long wanted to empower people to use music in their home lives, making music on their own for worship and entertainment. Too long we’ve left the music to the professionals, and this could be a wonderful opportunity for the church to sing everywhere.

Children's ministry folks also know that not all joyful noises require an open mouth! "Singing" can be done using instruments, rhythm, body movement, and hand motions. Perhaps this is something adult worship leaders could take a page from.

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 Read our related new topic: "Singing with Kids in the Time of COVID"

Other Ways to Sing in the Time of COVID

For children's ministry, here are several ways you could potentially lower the risk of "super-spreading by singing" while still be able to include the power and pleasure of "singing" God's praise when we're safely back together.

All of the following suggestions assume you have all your other safe-practice ducks in order.

1. Sing outside where the science of sunlight, air circulation, and increased distance can work for us.

Project or display lyrics.
See the non-singing suggestions below.
And... continue to wear masks.
And... continue to maintain appropriate distances,
And... continue to clean surfaces (including microphones)

2. Use Movement and Motion instead of voice to "sing."

Not only is this a technique many children's leaders are familiar with, it opens up learning opportunities when students discuss what movements best interpret the lyrics.

Not all joyful noises require an open mouth. 
 

3. Hum instead of sing, or use rhythm instruments

And... continue to wear masks.
And... continue to maintain appropriate distances.
And... continue to clean surfaces.

4. Quiet Your Singing and Speaking

Have kids whisper or sing softly (kids will like this) while continuing to wear masks and keep an appropriate distance. Make sure leaders don't have to shout.

Researchers warn that the constant and forceful expulsion of droplets during singing and speaking loudly in confined space risks "super spreading" (allows one infected person to infect others in mass by forcefully spraying droplets).

If you are the leader, song leader, or speaker, stand back from people, use your “inside voice” as our moms used to say, and use a microphone (and don't forget to clean it afterward).

5. Move singing to an online "sing-along" format.

Let's all pray for the day when these become "just" creative ideas instead of creative necessities.

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A List of "Healthy Sunday School" Practices 
for those Sunday Schools re-opening
during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The following suggestions are based on numerous suggestions being published by various denominations and children's ministries. Your suggestions welcome.

It's important to communicate that these practices are not just "for the kids" (who don't seem to be especially susceptible to the virus), but for the ADULTS who lead them, their families, and for other adults coming to church who are at higher risk of contracting the virus from casual transmission. Communicating these "reasons" can help put children and young parents at ease who might harbor some fears about getting sick. "Doing this for others" is a great teaching opportunity too.

  1. Require masks, provide masks.

  2. Have teachers meet their students at the door of the classroom. Have a helper inside the classroom assist students as they arrive to understand new classroom practices. Screen for children or adult helpers who might be ill.

  3. Require parents and siblings to remain outside the classroom if they are dropping off or picking up.

  4. Post safety rules in multiple locations for all to see. Share with parents ahead of time.

  5. Require students to wash hands prior to entering the classroom and AFTER leaving the classroom. This will likely need to be supervised. (Tip: provide fun "stickers" to mark those who have washed.) 

  6. Place hand-santizers and sanitizing wipes/cleaning supplies in each classroom.

  7. Create "social distances" between students and teachers in the classrooms by the creative arrangement of chairs and tables. Set class size limits to maintain social distancing. 

  8. Use visual markers, such as blue painters tape on the table, to help students keep their distance. 

  9. Reduce or eliminate the sharing of materials, such as markers, Bibles, and art supplies.

  10. Reduce or eliminate the use of games or activities that involve contact and loud voices.

  11. Eliminate singing in the traditional manner (see related post about that).

  12. If food is present, provide gloves to the teacher and practice safe food-handling (don't pass a plate, for example).

  13. Wipe down surfaces, objects, and "touch points" before and after classes with disinfectant. Don't forget doors knobs, shared items, tables, and chair backs.

  14. Open windows and doors wherever possible to increase air flow and fresh air exchange.

  15. Discuss the installation and use of HEPA filters in the church's HVAC system. If your church will not install a central HEPA filter, you can tape your OWN HEPA-rated filters (found at your local hardware) to your classroom air intake and output vents.

  16. Continue to reach out and include those who cannot (or will not) attend in person.

  17. Have your requirements and practices "officially approved" by the church, publicize the practices, and let everyone know that if they can't follow the requirements, then they should not attend "at this time."

  18. Take and share photos of teachers and kids engaged in safe practices to help those "waiting" to return and encourage the continuation of safe practices. Inspire confidence among your parents.

  19. Spend time talking with your students in every lesson about how they are dealing with all the changes and worries related to the COVID crisis. This is a teaching opportunity! 

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I saw a great suggestion to help children visualize their social distance spacing: place each chair in a hula hoop (or have the children sit on the floor and stay inside his or her hula hoop's circle). Another suggestion is to mark a grid on the floor with tape (like a parking lot, with "aisles" between rows of personal spaces).

And for classes that require supplies, get a colorful cheap beach bucket for each child at the dollar store to hold pencils, papers, scissors, gluesticks, etc. Each child has a bucket waiting inside his or her space. No need to pass out supplies during class (some children may need to be reminded not to peek, or if all of the supplies are needed later in the class time, pass out the buckets when needed --- after washing your hands again.) No need to mark names on buckets - the nonconsumable supplies can be cleaned before the next week. Although I believe most people agree that the virus does not live on surfaces for very long, so if each bucket is only used once a week, you might not really need to clean them or the supplies inside them before the next Sunday.

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